As a kid, Dexter Suggs wasn’t sure he’d make it out of his violence-riddled St. Louis neighborhood. Thirty years later, he’s working to help students in Little Rock realize that anything is possible
Dexter Suggs Sr. has lived many lives in his 44 years. Growing up in St. Louis, he was caught up in the current of gang violence until an opportunity to attend a high school far from his neighborhood pushed him to turn things around.
He excelled in sports, and his grades improved. Suggs ended up attending Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and joining the Army Reserve, eventually serving in the Persian Gulf War. When he returned stateside, Suggs focused on education, eventually earning two master’s degrees and a doctorate in organizational leadership from Indiana Wesleyan University. Teaching, Suggs says, was a way to give back to the community and encourage students to build a path to a better life through education, as he had.
It’s been a long road from English teacher to assistant principal, chief information officer and, most recently, chief of staff for the Indianapolis Public Schools. But Suggs is ready for his shot as superintendent. In July, Suggs moved into his new office at the Little Rock School District building downtown. Though he’s still settling in after his move from Indiana, Suggs is eager to talk about where he’s been, and where he hopes to take the district.
What is the main lesson you carry from your childhood in the Walnut Park neighborhood of St. Louis?
Never give up. You have to believe you can do anything. Perseverance and self-determination are important. If you look at the data, Walnut Park is still probably considered one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country. I’ve walked through hell, pretty much, and survived. I don’t want to use it as a negative thing. I want to use it as motivation. I don’t want to go back there because I know what it’s like, and I don’t want anyone to have to walk that particular path.
When did you decide to make a career in education your main goal?
That took place during my time in the Persian Gulf. I had a lot of quality time to think about what I wanted to do with my life, when we weren’t being fired at. I was determined that I was going to make it back stateside, but I had to become more focused. I thought the best way to give back to society was to become an educator. But I didn’t want to become just an educator; I wanted to become the very best educator that I could possibly be. I got into education to help others. It was not to help me. But I knew if I made myself a better person, I’d be able to help those around me even better.
As a first-time superintendent, what’s going to be the most difficult thing to adjust to in your new role?
In the past, I was in the background. I don’t necessarily like the limelight because I like to do the work and give others credit. Now, you can’t hide. You’re the face of the district. The hardest part will be being out there in the forefront, but it doesn’t bother me. In my journey, I’ve been prepared for this position.
What’s the biggest challenge facing the Little Rock School District right now?
Improving student achievement will be my No. 1 challenge. Changing perceptions of the school district will be another challenge. We have pockets of success, but we have to develop an entire system of success. This will not be a Little Rock School District initiative only—it’s going to take a citywide effort if we’re going to create sustainable transformation in this school district. We need to have people understand that as the district will go, the city will go. If we are not successful in transforming this district, you will see a [negative]transformation in this city. And it’s not going to be good.
You mentioned the district has ‘pockets of success.’ What are those pockets, and where is there still untapped potential?
We have some of the best elementary schools, I’m willing to say, in the nation. I’ve had the opportunity to travel throughout this nation, seeing some of the best school districts and some perceived to be the worst. The Little Rock School District has by far some of the best elementary schools. More importantly, it has some of the best people. When they say “Southern hospitality,” it is real. If you have people with the right attitude and who want change, but may not know how to bring it together, that’s a good thing. We can work with that. I think we have a lot of talent, but they haven’t been given the opportunity to grow or to expand that talent. We’ll have to tap into that talent if we want to be successful.
How are you working with the community to clear up misconceptions about the district?
I’m conducting a number of what I call listening-and-learning tours—meeting with the business community—and we will conduct town hall meetings in the upcoming months to engage parents and community members in those conversations. We want everyone to understand that we have to work hand in hand if we’re going to transform this school district. That will be an ongoing process. We’re going to be very transparent and very upfront. If there’s an issue, we’re going to put it on the table.